On being non-academic as well

By | June 17, 2015

On the Quora answer site, the question was recently posed, “Do PhD students get time to pursue their hobbies?” By the time I saw it, they were already some 41 answers posted, many of which spoke negatively about opportunities for extra-academic activity. For me, this seems like an opportunity to reflect on the other half of what I took out of my graduate school experience, apart from my academic training – that is, my partial identity as a craftsman and remodeler. My evolution along these lines is a key part of my own Moral Tale, so I thought it might be interesting to share my response here as well as with Quora.

I had worked for the Federal government as a middle management trainee for some 5 years before I decided to go back to graduate school for a PhD. During that time, I had observed a lot of strange behavior on the part of my organization and my fellow employees. I’d had a chance to work very close to the Secretarial level, as well as to interact closely with the secretaries. Basically, I was able to determine that something was wrong somewhere, and I wanted to learn more about it. I cooked up an opportunity to study organizational behavior at the University of Michigan, and put together a rather unusual PhD program that allowed me to take courses in a number of different areas ranging from organizational psychology to public policy to research methods. My wife took a position at the University’s Institute for Social Research, and we settled into the rather comfortable life of older graduate students.

However, we were both restless sorts (having both been brought up as Army brats), and quiet apartment living just wasn’t cutting it for us. So we started looking for a house to buy, and immediately gravitated to the older more interesting houses in the area known as the Old 17-440fourthstreetWest Side of Ann Arbor. Abbreviating a rather long and interesting tale of how we found and purchased our house, I’ll jump to the point at which we moved in on Labor Day 1975 and were told 3 days later that we were going to be the showcase of the annual Old West Side Association house tour on Labor Day 1976. That meant we had one year to complete a rather thorough renovation of an 1886 Queen Anne Style house – on a graduate student income and graduate student time.

After a couple of months, it became painfully apparent that my skills with tools and equipment, while somewhat better than average, were not going to stretch to this particular task. So the Co-Chair of the Association essentially lent me the services of her husband to guide and supervise and participate in our renovation. He was a really amazing guy – he had not even completed high school, yet he was the chief artisan and model maker for the physics department and part of the engineering school. There was absolutely no tool that he didn’t know how to use superbly. And yet having worked with students and faculty for all those years, he was still willing to put up with my ignorance and lack of skill, as long as I was willing to respect his knowledge and skill and undertake to learn.

Over the course of the year, we became very close friends with the older couple, a friendship that went well beyond our immediate renovation (we were in fact the hit of the 1976 house tour). Working with him and with our beautiful house essentially became so much a part of my life that it became almost a second life. It would be hard to call home renovation and development merely a “hobby”; basically, it consumed most of my life that was not devoted to research and work on my degree. Oddly enough, it did not interfere with my academic pursuits. I was able to pursue each kind of activity fully while I was doing it, and escape from the problems of each pursuit into the by then relatively more manageable problems of the other.

Eventually, I finished my degree and took a teaching position at a nearby university. That led in turn to an extended stay at the National Science Foundation in Washington, on to California and a series of other academic and consulting positions, to my present semiretired condition. Over all this period, home renovation has continued to be my second pursuit. I’m on my seventh (and definitely last) renovation, now in its 23rd year.During a good part of the 1990s, my then-partner and I undertook an almost complete re-do of my present house, going down to the slab and studs inside and rebuilding each room pretty much from scratch. We were able to do all the work ourselves, with two exceptions – jackhammering up the slab to re-route the bathroom drains and building the shower pan. There is something immensely satisfying about living in a house where you personally sweat all the copper joints in the plumbing system – and take responsibility for them.

Work on the house remains for me a source of endless interest and opportunity for exercise of skills – carpentry, plumbing, electricity, stucco, paint, etc. – not normally found in middle-aged academics. I find myself in possession of one or more of just about every tool known to the Western Hemisphere, and the owner of what amounts to a small hardware store of parts, nails, wire, and paraphernalia. However, I’m not as nimble as I used to be, and there are a lot of things I need help with now. I’ve taken on my own apprentices, and tried to pass on some of the skills that my older friend taught me so many years ago, in the same spirit of respect and collegiality. Craftsmanship taught me a lot about how to work with other people, and the model generalizes to my academic apprentices as well.

No matter how hard you try, your academic work will never fill your life entirely. There will always be holes to be filled by something. The trick is to find something meaningful and rewarding and full of opportunity for growth to fill up your odd hours, whether you call it a hobby or a calling or a second life or simply a habit. You will be a richer person for it, and those around you will find you enrich their lives as well.

I have no idea how well this answer will be received by the Quora community, but it was helpful to me to compose. I’m still trying to understand who I am at the stage of my life, and it helps me to remember that I am the sum of many activities, only some of which are definably academic.